When you gather with friends and family for the holidays, you have a pretty good idea of what conversational pitfalls to avoid. By now you know which family member believes aliens are real, or which friend thinks the solution to the current political situation is to nuke Massachusetts.
You know not to let Aunt Cynthia see you eating a cracker. (“Those things are laced with preservatives — you might as well eat poison.”) You are careful to stay away from topics that ultimately make your loved ones storm out and slam doors.
When you’re at a social gathering of people with whom you are only slightly acquainted, though, it’s more challenging to avoid a) tension or b) boredom. After you and the guest seated next to you have agreed that it certainly is unusual weather for this time of year, where do you risk going next?
Sometimes you don’t get a choice in the matter, because that stranger with whom you have been thrown together is a windbag. Several years ago, Sally and I were at a banquet table; our dinner companions included a man who grew up in North Dakota. He thought we would all be fascinated by stories from his youth, mostly concerning livestock. He shared anecdotes about a calf that didn’t have a penis, about castrating cattle, about techniques of artificial insemination. These were not stories, really, because they never went anywhere — it was just a jumble of ruminations involving things that shouldn’t be discussed at mealtime.
In circumstances like that, or when attempts at conversation have lapsed into awkward silence, obviously someone needs to change the subject — but to what? In the situation described above, it wouldn’t improve things much to talk instead about that fake doctor in Florida who was doing cosmetic surgery with cement, mineral oil, and flat-tire sealant.
The list of hot-button topics goes beyond the merely revolting to politics, religion, ethnicity, favorite sports teams, celebrity divorces, and the questionable military strategy of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
So here’s one approach to changing the subject that should be relatively safe: bring up an Imponderable. You may not know them by that name, but they have certainly popped into your head from time to time. It’s stuff for which there seems to be no simple explanation.
For example, why does “homely” have an unpleasant connotation? I think of home as a good thing. Or here’s another one: When something is described as “foolproof”, who did they test it on?
There are lots of Imponderables floating around the internet, like “What does cheese say when it has its picture taken?” There’s also “What was the best thing before sliced bread?” Did you ever stop to wonder why sheep don’t shrink when it rains? One that just occurred to me is why we call them Imponderables — we’re pondering them right now, aren’t we?
Anyway, when you find yourself in a situation that requires a change of subject, bringing up one or more of the Imponderables could do the trick. Before you know it, you just might be standing at that punch bowl all by yourself!